I went into Sunday night’s finale with the Yankees believing that it was the Red SOx’ biggest game of 2022 to-date. They had pulled off a borderline miraculous win Saturday night on the backs of Alex Verdugo, Rob Refsnyder, and a guy named Jeter, and in doing so they put themselves in position to split a four-game series with the best team in baseball after using recent minor league callups as starting pitchers for the first three games. With Red Sox ace Nick Pivetta getting the start against Jameson Taillon on Sunday, I thought the stars had aligned perfectly for Boston to magically escape this series with a draw.
By the end of the third inning, I was not only in serious doubt of the possibility for the Red Sox to earn the split, I was also deeply in question of that “ace” designation I had bestowed upon Pivetta.
This happened earlier in the season back on May 17th, when the Red Sox were desperately trying to claw their way out of the hole they’d dug themselves in to start the year. They’d just split a two-game series in Atlanta and taken two of three in Texas before defeating the Astros in the first of a three-game set at Fenway. Nathan Eovaldi toed the rubber to try and clinch a series win against one of the two best teams in the AL, which would have signified that the Red Sox had arrived and were no longer the pushovers they had been for the first six weeks of the season. At that point, I felt like that was the biggest game of the year for the Red Sox.
The type of game where you depend on your ace to deliver a solid performance to lead the way for his team.
After retiring the side on five pitches in the first inning, Eovaldi did the exact opposite of what you need an ace to do. He gave up nine runs on five homers and took the Red Sox right out of the game without giving them a chance to compete. I immediately announced that I would no longer recognize Nathan Eovaldi as the Red Sox ace on the grounds that no pitcher can come into an important game where his team needs him to be nails and have a historically awful outing. Regardless of all he did in 2018 and 2021 … and I will always appreciate every pitch he threw in those two seasons … I revoked his ace card after that performance.
Luckily for us, Nick Pivetta stepped up the very next day and showed us how a true ace pitches, tossing a one-hit shutout where only two men reached base and clinching the series win. From that moment forward, I declared that Nick Pivetta was the true ace of the Red Sox pitching staff, with Eovaldi relegated to number three behind Michael Wacha.
Pivetta was my bulldog, the guy I wanted on the mound for every important game from then on.
Sunday night’s performance, however, has put me into the position of having to rethink the ace designation once again.
Pivetta didn’t give up nine runs in an inning. He didn’t give up five homers. In fact, the Red Sox didn’t even lose the game. They stormed back against Taillon and the heralded Yankee bullpen to drop an 11-spot to complete an incredibly unlikely split and show the world that they can go toe-to-toe with the best the league has to offer, even with four starting pitchers and their all-star third baseman out with injuries.
It was an electric weekend at Fenway, with the bombs of Refsnyder, Martinez, and Vazquez teaming up with the timely hitting of Verdugo, Story, and Jeter Downs and clutch hurling of Sawamura, Kaleb Ort, and Kutter Crawford to galvanize the crowd and create a playoff atmosphere in the Hub. But the fiery screams, fist pumps, and back-bending curveballs of Pivetta were not among the many clamor-inducing thrills we got to enjoy Sunday night.
Serving up the first inning home run to Giancarlo Stanton that sped into the bullpen with an exit velocity of 15 parsecs wasn’t nearly as troubling as the back-to-back walks he issued to sixth and seventh hitters Matt Carpenter and Aaron Hicks (the only two walks Boston pitching allowed in the game) to open the second inning. After RBI singles by the two men at the bottom of the order, Jose Trevino and Isiah Kiner-Falefa, Pivetta had given up four runs before he could even record his fourth out of the game.
What was even more disturbing was Pivetta’s failure to record a shutdown inning after Franchy Cordero cut the Red Sox deficit in half with a two-run home run in the bottom of the second. Former Cardinals star and adult film reject Matt Carpenter took Pivetta deep to reclaim the four-run Yankee lead with his jaw-dropping tenth home run of the season in the top of the third. Pivetta would only retire two more batters, his night ending after 3.1 innings, six earned runs, eight hits, two walks, and five strikeouts. The Red Sox needed a win, and Pivetta pitched like a poor man’s Kutter Crawford.
Eovaldi and Chris Sale are due back soon, which will hopefully put a charge back into the starting rotation that was Boston’s biggest strength for much of the first half. James Paxton may also join the team in August and, if we’re lucky, Wacha’s arm will lighten up and the rotation will be back at full strength (Rich Hill may eventually be of some use too). But after Sunday night, we no longer have that one guy that I feel great about taking the ball in a big game against a great offense.
I don’t expect a team’s ace to shut out the best teams in the league in every big game. But every bona fide contender needs at least one steady hand that can be counted on to throw five or six solid innings … call it four runs or less … in a big game against virtually any team in the league the vast majority of the time. The Astros have Justin Verlander. The Dodgers have (with all due respect to Clayton Kershaw) Tony Gonsolin. The White Sox have Dylan Cease. The Yankees have Gerrit Cole. The Padres have Joe Musgrove.
Who are the Red Sox giving the ball to in a must-win game in 2022?
The old NFL adage is that if you have two starting quarterbacks, you don’t have a starting quarterback. Can it hurt to have two great starting pitchers? Of course not. But if you don’t have one guy that you can arrange your rotation around with a big game on the horizon or schedule as your game one starter in a playoff series, you are at a disadvantage in comparison to the other top teams in the league.
Nick Pivetta can outpitch Nathan Eovaldi at any point, and vice versa. Thus, none of us, Alex Cora included, can truly be sure which starting pitcher gives the Red Sox the best chance to win when the stakes are highest. While Eovaldi comes with a broad postseason pedigree, Pivetta is younger, healthier, and began building his own portfolio of dazzling October moments last season.
I trust Eovaldi to pitch well more often than not. I trust Pivetta to do the same. I believe that either man has the ability to dominate any lineup in the Major Leagues. But when I watch either of them walk out to the mound to begin a season-altering game, I do not feel warm and fuzzy inside the way I did with Pedro Martinez in 2004, Josh Beckett in 2007, or Jon Lester in 2013. In my gut, I’m split down the middle with each guy. Will he, or won’t he?
I think that I was too quick to anoint Nick Pivetta the ace of the Red Sox pitching staff, but that’s not because I think Nathan Eovaldi is more deserving of the honor. It’s because I don’t think the Boston Red Sox have an ace. The last time either guy had an opportunity to stake their claim to that honor, they outright failed to do so.
Vague injury descriptions like heavy arm, which sounds an awful lot like dead arm, are generally the harbinger of more specific, long-term injuries, making Michael Wacha’s return and ascendancy into the ace position feel like a desperate longshot.
It’s too bad we don’t have any other once-dominant, elite starting pitchers on their way back to the rotation any time soon.